11 TV Theme Songs That Tell the Back Story

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TV theme songs are an endangered species, growing shorter and less creative each year. Why? Blame advertising. Commercial breaks are longer than they used to be—about eight minutes per half hour of broadcast programming. To make the most of every second of airtime, TV producers sacrifice the appetizers of opening credits and theme songs and go right into the main course. But it wasn't always that way. Let's flip back to a gentler, canned laughter-filled time when TV theme songs not only set a show's tone, but also gave viewers important background information.

1. The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)

Well, I'll be. The Beverly Hillbillies was the originator of the "fish out of water" TV show genre. Writer and producer Paul Henning wrote the theme song and asked the bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs to play the instrumentals. When the two sang and recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" on their own in 1963, the song reached #1 on the country charts. No other TV theme song enjoyed as much radio success until 1980, when Waylon Jennings recorded "The Good Ol' Boys" for The Dukes of Hazzard.

2. Gilligan's Island (1964-1967)

The Gilligan's Island theme song didn't just give viewers a catchy Cliffs Notes version of the plot. It also had ending credits that encouraged them to stay tuned and see what happened next time. (Spoiler alert: They remained stranded.) But you know what the theme song forgot to explain? Why did the Howells take so much luggage on what was supposed to be a three-hour tour? "A three-hour tour!"

3. Green Acres (1965-1971)

After the success of The Beverly Hillbillies, Paul Henning added to his sitcom cash crop with another rural, "fish out of water" comedy. This time, a glamorous Manhattan couple moved to a farm in Hooterville. Green Acres stood out for its surrealism, satire, and a catchy theme song sung by the two main characters. Alas, both the hillbillies and the New York transplants were put to pasture in 1971 when CBS cancelled many shows with rural settings to make room for more contemporary programming, like The New Dick Van Dyke Show.

4. That Girl (1966-1971)

Walking New York City streets, flying a kite, seeing her double in a store window ... It's that theme song! Episodes of That Girl originally opened with musical scenes, a freeze-frame, and credits. Lyrics were introduced in the last season to describe who "that girl" was. "Chestnuts, rainbows, springtime/She's tinsel on a tree/She's everything that every girl should be!" Actually, there was much more to That Girl. It was the first sitcom about a single woman who didn't live with her parents or work as a maid.

5. The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)

Perhaps the most well-known TV back story of all, The Brady Bunch theme song read like an elevator pitch. You won't be shocked to find out that the man responsible for introducing us to every member of this groovy blended family in just under a minute is none other than Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of Gilligan's Island.

6. The Jeffersons (1975-1985)

TV audiences didn't need much of an introduction to The Jeffersons—the show was a spin-off from All in the Family. The gospel theme song didn't explain how Archie Bunker's neighbors made their fortune. (Answer: A lawsuit and a dry cleaning business, in that order.) All viewers knew was that George and Weezy were movin' on up from working-class Queens to the Upper East Side. Recognize the singer's voice? It's Ja'net Dubois, the actress who played Willona Woods on Good Times.

7. My Two Dads (1987-1989)

In the last few years, the TV shows Brothers and Sisters, Modern Family, and The New Normal have all featured gay dads. But gay couples and families haven't always been considered ready for primetime. NBC's My Two Dads and ABC's Full House premiered the same year and shared a similar premise—multiple father figures bringing up precocious, motherless daughters. Lest viewers confuse Michael (Paul Reiser) and Joey (Greg Evigan) for romantic partners, the theme song of My Two Dads breezily explained that Judge Margaret Wilbur ruled that 12-year-old Nicole should live with the two men who might be her biological father. Better yet, they all live together in an apartment building owned by the judge. Because that's plausible.

8. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)

Will Smith made a name for himself when he and DJ Jazzy Jeff won the first Grammy Award for rap music in 1988. But the song Smith's most famous for isn't "Parents Just Don't Understand" or "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It." It's the Quincy Jones-produced rap he wrote and performed for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The first three episodes of the sitcom used the complete theme song above, but it was eventually abridged to allow for longer episodes.

9. The Nanny (1993-1999)

"She's the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan!" The jazzy animated theme song to The Nanny says it all—about both Fran Drescher's character and the song itself. After the pilot, producers replaced the original opening number, "If My Friends Could See Me Now" from the Broadway musical Sweet Charity, with Ann Hampton Callaway's "The Nanny Named Fran." What, too subtle?

10. Sister, Sister (1994-1999)

Like its child stars Tia and Tamera Mowry, the Sister, Sister theme song grew up over the years. And sometimes it was downright awkward. The first season's opening combined a catchy song with words and animation, so even the most unobservant viewers got the premise. Then it was shortened for season two and redone to look more like a music video. The opening continued to change as new characters were introduced and actors hit puberty. By season five, Tia and Tamera were performing a new theme song themselves. Turns out, these twins were no triple threat.

11. Strangers With Candy (1999-2000)

"The Trip Back" is a 1970 public service recording by a former heroin addict and prostitute named Florrie Fisher. In addition to warning teens about the perils of drug addiction, it was unintentionally hilarious. When actors Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert watched it years later, they noticed Fisher looked a lot like their friend Amy Sedaris. A spoof was born. Strangers With Candy opened with the testimony of Jerri Blank, a former "boozer, user, and loser" who never actually learned the right lesson at the end of each episode. You can watch the opening here.

But don't touch that dial! What's your favorite TV theme song of all time?

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May 13, 2013 - 8:11pm
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